The UpStream

Google Dragonfly to Collect Phone Numbers, Unhappy Employees Resign

posted Saturday Sep 15, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Google Dragonfly to Collect Phone Numbers, Unhappy Employees Resign

Last month it was revealed that, after several years of absence from the Chinese market, Google had begun developing a censored search product for the country. This was after leaving the country in 2010 because they refused to continue censoring search for the government. Since then, however, the founders of the company have returned and their views on censorship are different than the team who ran it in their absence. There's been no hesitation to censor content on YouTube and there are accusations of censoring search results.

This week, some new information was revealed about the prototype of for the censored search product, codenamed Dragonfly. Namely, the search product and therefore search terms and results would be tied to the user's phone number. While that doesn't sound like much of a problem to those of us in the West, in China it is a big deal. It is against the law to even perform a search for certain terms, including human rights and democracy, and by tying your search terms to your phone number, the government can identify and imprison those who are interested in those topics, all with Google's help.

This is not the first time that Google has agreed to give search information to the Chinese government in order to help imprison citizens for searching for these types of topics, but it all came to a close under new management. Cynthia Wong from Human Rights Watch, told The Intercept,

This is very problematic from a privacy point of view, because it would allow far more detailed tracking and profiling of people's behavior. Linking searches to a phone number would make it much harder for people to avoid the kind of overreaching government surveillance that is pervasive in China.

Human Rights Watch is not the only one taking exception to the idea of Google making this kind of correlation easy for the Chinese government. They are also up against their own employees. Over 1000 Google employees have begun a protest over the topic, and after learning about this new detail of Dragonfly, some employees have begun leaving the company. Google doesn't seem to be concerned about it just yet, releasing a statement saying,

We've been investing for many years to help Chinese users, from developing Android, through mobile apps such as Google Translate and Files Go, and our developer tools. But our work on search has been exploratory, and we are not close to launching a search product in China.

It's possible, based on this statement, that Google could change their policies or cancel the project entirely. Unfortunately, it is unlikely based on the recent track record of the company.

European Parliament Votes to Isolate Europe Online

posted Saturday Sep 15, 2018 by Scott Ertz

European Parliament Votes to Isolate Europe Online

Since the European Parliament began working on one of many conflicting regulations for online behavior, there has been nothing but negative comments. This particular package is designed to change the way copyrights are enforced in the EU, but the idea is poorly considered and creates an environment that makes doing business online within the European Union difficult for some and impossible for most. With all of the negative response to the regulations, it seemed nearly impossible that it would actually pass the European Parliament.

Never underestimate the confidence the European Parliament has in ignoring the will of the people, however, as this week they passed the package, starting the process of changing copyright enforcement within the EU. In the US, we have a policy called the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), which protects online services from legal action because of content that users upload to their platform. For example, if a user uploads an episode of a television show to YouTube, YouTube is not legally responsible for an act they were not involved with, so long as they respond to a copyright claim from the owners within a reasonable timeframe. The new regulations in the EU go the other way, seemingly removing the responsibility from the user who uploaded the content and moving it to YouTube, who did nothing.

Online content sharing service providers perform an act of communication to the public and therefore are responsible for their content and should therefore conclude fair and appropriate licensing agreements with rightholders.

In addition, this package implements the much talked about link tax, a required licensing fee for services that provide links to news content. We all know that Google, Facebook, Twitter, and MSN are all common ways for people to find news because they provide links to external news sources, some curated and some user-generated. Under the new rules, those sites would be required to pay the news sites that they are bringing users to in order to do so. Spain and Germany tried this previously, and Google responded by pulling Google News entirely from those countries. If the EU's goal is to limit the amount of information available to people, they're headed in the right direction.

These new regulations will guarantee that new companies will not be able to exist within the EU, limiting the innovation within the EU. People with good ideas are going to have to block their products within the region, hurting the people of the EU as well.

This fight is not over, though. The EU's legal process is convoluted at best. Now that the Parliament has approved the package it goes to a committee including the Parliament, the Council of the Europe Union and the European Commission. If it makes it through all of that, it still has to be approved by the 28 member countries of the EU before it goes into effect. Hopefully, the voices of the people, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other organizations will be heard in this process in the next few months.

Nintendo Reveals More Info About Switch Cloud Saves and More

posted Friday Sep 14, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Nintendo Reveals More Info About Switch Cloud Saves and More

Last week, Nintendo scheduled their latest Nintendo Direct presentation. Unfortunately, there was an earthquake in Japan, delaying the event, and it was rescheduled for this week. During the presentation, little to no new information was presented about the imminent Nintendo Switch Online service, instead detailing the information we already know about the $20 per year subscription service. Following the presentation, however, Nintendo published some new information to their website, giving us a better look at some of the rules and regulations surrounding the service.

Cloud Saves

Just like the Xbox and PlayStation, Nintendo's Switch Online will allow you to store game saves in their online services. This gives players the ability to play across devices while maintaining their game data. For Switch Online, simply sign in to another Switch and easily access your existing game data. Nintendo did find a way to separate their cloud save feature from the other platforms, and it's not making a lot of gamers happy.

Microsoft's cloud save feature is free to use, with or without a paid Xbox Live subscription. Xbox simply requires a Microsoft account, which is offered for free, and a OneDrive account, which is free with the Microsoft account. PlayStation requires you to have a paid PlayStation Plus account to use cloud saves. If a user stops paying for their PlayStation Plus account, Sony will keep their cloud saves for 6 months, allowing you to restore their account without losing data. Nintendo, like Sony, requires a paid Switch Online subscription but gives absolutely no leniency or gap time if you stop paying for the service. If you stop paying for the service, the company says they are "unable to guarantee that cloud save data will be retained after an extended period of time from when your membership is ended."

Classic NES Games

One feature that comes with the Switch Online service that helps entice gamers is online-capable classic NES games. This is similar in nature to the free games that Xbox Live, PlayStation Plus and Twitch Prime offer to their subscribers. For the entirety of your Switch Online subscription, you will get access to these games. To be able to continue using these games, gamers will be required to connect their Switch consoles to the internet at least once per week.

If this requirement sounds familiar, it is because Microsoft originally planned to have the same requirement for Xbox One owners, as announced at their final E3 presentation before launching the console. Gamers revolted and threatened to boycott the console entirely, causing Microsoft to abandon their plans. While gamers seem unhappy about this requirement, there has been nowhere near the same reaction to the same requirement from Nintendo, making it hard to believe that Microsoft actually had anything to worry about a few years ago.

As for the requirement, it is perfectly reasonable to ensure a valid license for the games. There is the possibility that the console has been reported stolen, and you don't want someone to have an extra reason to want to steal the device. The attached account may also have been terminated for a variety of reasons, including cancelation of service and a ban for cheating.

Apple Event: Misinformation, Misconceptions and Missing Products

posted Friday Sep 14, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Apple Event: Misinformation, Misconceptions and Missing Products

This week was Apple's annual iPhone announcement event and the company did what it does best - talk about their products like there's never been anything like them in the history of man. Of course, everyone knows that it's simply hyperbole because almost all phones on the market are exactly like it - often times better than it. While hyperbole involves a small level of misinformation, or at the very least a rewriting of the scale of information, Apple took it to a new level this year.


If you watched the announcement livestream, you noticed there were a couple of points where Apple announced seemingly improbable features and accomplishments. The first and most misleading of these announcements involved the FDA and Apple Watch. With the words that Apple Watch's ECG technology had been cleared by the FDA, the room went nuts. It certainly sounds like an exciting step for a company who doesn't make medical products. However, that is exactly what they said - the FDA does not consider it to be a medical quality product. In fact, "cleared" means almost nothing when it comes to the FDA. According to Apple, they have actually received "a De Novo classification by the FDA" which means that the FDA simply considers the device to be of low risk in its existence, not that it has any medical use or that its data is accurate. The ECG app on the Apple Watch does not do any analysis, it simply allows you to give data to a medical professional, which is why the FDA says that the device is unlikely to cause harm. There are scenarios, however, where it can.

Another statement that was made that sounded like it meant something different from what it meant involved the screen on the iPhone. A casual mention of the iPhone screen's 120Hz refresh rate suggested that the phone's screen had a 120Hz refresh rate. That would have put the device on par with the Razer Phone and would have been a feature welcomed by photographers, videographers, editors and gamers alike. This would have set the iPhone apart from its competition and would have been an actual game changer for Apple. Unfortunately, the refresh rate on the iPhone screen is 60Hz and, instead, the touch sensor's refresh rate is 120Hz. This is not only not a game changer, it is not a change from last year's iPhone X.

Missing Features

It is official - Apple is 100% done with the headphone jack. No iPhone currently available from the company features the last standard connector that Apple included on its mobile devices. iPhone users are now stuck with using a Lightning to headphone adaptor, using headphones with a DAC built-in (like the Monster Elements) or going full Bluetooth. DAC-enabled headphones are few and far between and are not inexpensive. Bluetooth headphones have their problems - the biggest being the requirement to charge. If your battery dies so does the music.

Adapters are not great because they easily get lost or damaged, but at least Apple includes the adapter in the box. Or, should I say they used to. Starting now, no more adapters included with iPhones. If you want to continue using your favorite headphones with your new iPhone, you had better already have the adapter or shell out another $9. Definitely a disappointment.

Missing Product

Last year, along with the iPhone 8 and iPhone X, Apple announced that they had officially accepted the industry standard of wireless charging - Qi. Both of these devices support charging via Qi, marking the final major manufacturer to get on board with this feature. Like many handset manufacturers, in addition to a device that charges using Qi, they also showed off a Qi charger: AirPower. Like many other Qi chargers on the market, AirPower had multiple charging coils and was designed to charge an iPhone, Apple Watch and AirPods.

Despite the fact that there was literally nothing special about the product, it was mysteriously delayed. Time. And. Again. In fact, it has still not been released. Even more importantly, it was not mentioned at this year's event at all. Being delayed for over a year now, and with absolutely no mention of the product at their event this year, we can assume that Apple has given up on AirPower. Maybe thye saw what everyone else saw - there was nothing special about the product and therefore had no way to upcharge for it. All we know is that it is nowhere to be seen.

Amazon Considering Free, Ad-Supported Video Service for Fire TV

posted Saturday Sep 1, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Amazon Considering Free, Ad-Supported Video Service for Fire TV

Amazon has had a lot of success with Prime Video, the video streaming service that comes included with an Amazon Prime subscription. They have expanded the service from licensed video to original content, including big budget content like Jack Ryan, which released this weekend. The company may be looking to expand their video offering once again with a new service.

According to a report, this new service, allegedly named Free Dive, and would be coming from Amazon's subsidiary IMDb. The service, if real, would be an ad-supported, free streaming platform specifically for Fire TVs. This approach would be similar to how Roku's homespun Roku Channel got its start: exclusive to the platform and ad-supported.

Unlike Prime Video, which thrives on its original content, Free Dive is reported to be focused mostly on licensed content. This is a smart and safe way to launch a new service of this type, as it reduces the cost and liability should the service fail. Since the service is Amazon-owned, they might be able to use the licensing they already have for Prime Video and apply those deals to Free Dive.

Ad-supported platforms have had mixed reactions over the years. Hulu originally launched as a freely available, ad-supported platform. They eventually added a monthly fee as the lineup of content expanded, leaving only the most recent content available for free. Ultimately, they removed free content, shifting the responsibility to Yahoo. Sony's Crackle has always been a freely available, ad-supported platform that, outside of The Interview in 2014, most people have never interacted with.

On the other hand, Roku's Roku Channel has been a major success for the company. In fact, it has been popular enough that it has gone from a company product exclusive to being available on the without any Roku hardware. With Roku Channel being the closest analogous offering to Free Dive, there is some hope that this new offering could be a success.

Senator Recommends FTC Look At Google's Fundamentals Again

posted Saturday Sep 1, 2018 by Scott Ertz

Senator Recommends FTC Look At Google's Fundamentals Again

Another day, another example of a government official questioning Google. The week started with President Trump making accusations that Google's search results were prioritizing certain content over others. This is an accusation that has been made many times by people all over the world. It has varied from claiming the company prioritizes its own content over more relevant results to filtering content that Google's corporate leadership disagrees with.

The important topic, however, came up on Thursday when Senator Orrin Hatch sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission encouraging them to reopen their investigation into Google's policies. Senator Hatch said in the letter,

I write to express my concern about recent reports on Google's search and digital advertising practices. In the past, Google has placed restrictions on publishers' displaying search advertisements from its competitors. Google loosened some of those restrictions when faced with antitrust complaints, and the European Commission has said it is monitoring to see if those new restrictions have anticompetitive effects. Then in May, 60 Minutes aired a segment that highlighted several allegations regarding purportedly anticompetitive conduct by the company involving its search practices.

Other reports have highlighted the fact that Google has, on occasion, decided to remove from its platforms legal businesses that the company apparently does not agree with. Moreover, in the past several months, several of my Senate colleagues wrote to Alphabet, Google's parent company, regarding its data collection by the Android mobile operating system and privacy practices for Gmail users' data, including Google's practice of giving third-party app developers access to the actual content of emails.

Needless to say, I found these reports disquieting.

All of the issues raised in the letter are issues that should be of concern to consumers. Removing companies without violation, anticompetitive advertising practices, and privacy violations are all topics of interest to the public, especially considering Google's position in the market. Bing has made big gains in search, especially since introducing Microsoft Rewards, but Google still owns the majority of the market. When the FTC last looked into these policies, which was in 2010, the reason they concluded that the policies were not an issue had to do with the idea that Apple would become a big player in mobile advertising, which it has not.

Adding to Hatch's concerns has been a collection of new information, such as Google ignoring their own settings for location privacy. When combined with a report this week detailing a frightening deal with MasterCard to allow Google to track a person's in-person purchases using the card, it is almost certainly time for the FTC to at least take a look again.

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